Who remembers Dean Acheson? It's more than 60 years since the former US Secretary of State launched a verbal nuclear strike against Britain's post-World War Two pretensions which shocked Whitehall. Addressing an audience of students at West Point Military Academy, on 5 December 1962, Acheson claimed: 'Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role'.
He poured scorn on the idea that Britain could 'pursue a separate power role, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a special relationship
with the United States' and being head of a commonwealth with 'no political structure, or unity, or strength'. In his view: 'Great Britain, attempting to work alone and to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct a policy as weak as its military power'.
Dean Gooderham Acheson, was born in Middletown, Connecticut, on 11 April 1893. His father was the Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut, his mother the daughter of a wealthy Canadian brewer. Educated at Groton School for Boys (America's Eton), Yale University and Harvard Law School, Acheson interrupted a successful law career to become a full-time politician.
In May 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the first Democrat to form a government since Woodrow Wilson 16 years earlier, invited him to join the Treasury. Opinionated, confident, combative and eye-catchingly well-dressed, Dean Acheson arrived at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue to find the President proposed to employ an executive order to devalue the gold content of the dollar. Acheson advised the man in the Oval Office (with whom, incidentally, he shared a Groton background) that 'this device' was unconstitutional. Whereupon, as described by Alistair Cooke: 'Roosevelt blandly suggested he should go away and discover a precedent'. Having found none, Acheson 'resigned in a huff'.
Clydebank-born James Reston, the New York Times'
distinguished Washington bureau chief, blamed 'Mr Acheson's illusion that an Under-Secretary could have strong views about fiscal policy'. That and 'Mr Roosevelt's desire to have somebody in the job who approved his policies'. Reston didn't appear at all surprised that Acheson had been 'allowed to go' without so much as a 'Dear Dean' letter from the White House.
It took until February 1941, following FDR's unprecedented third win at the polls, before Washington buzzed with the news some older hacks never expected to hear: 'Dean Acheson's back'.
The former Under-Secretary of the Treasury was now Assistant-Secretary in the State Department, with an office at Foggy Bottom and special responsibility for lend-lease, congressional affairs and the planning of international conferences. Passed on 11 March 1941, nine months ahead of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, lend-lease was an Act of Congress which authorised the United States to send food, oil and equipment to allies at war with Hitler. Dean Acheson had been an outspoken member of the Committee to Defend America, which, according to James Reston, had been 'plumping for all-out aid to Britain, including the convoying of supplies across the Atlantic'.
Discounting his brief, unhappy spell at the Treasury (which lasted barely six months) Dean Acheson's long and eventful political career began and ended at Foggy Bottom. Appointed to the State Department in 1945, he was still there eight years later.
In November 1944, FDR ignored widespread concerns about his health to defeat his Republican challenger, Thomas E Dewey, in another landslide. Rewarded with a place in the President's previously unimagined fourth administration, Acheson was already in place on 12 April 1945 when Roosevelt died and the under-valued Vice-President, Harry S Truman, succeeded to the White House.
From Assistant-Secretary in April 1945 to Under-Secretary in August the same year, to Secretary of State four years later, Dean Acheson's political career prospered under Truman. By then, the former senator from Missouri was President in his own right, having defeated the hapless Thomas E Dewey in a three-cornered fight (a so-called Dixiecrat candidate, Strom Thurmond, contested the election) in November 1948. As Alistair Cooke observed: 'In the four years of their joint power, rarely a day went by that the President did not call in Acheson. The two men fitted hand and glove'.
Major milestones along the way included: (1) The Marshall Plan, which saved the political and economic fabric of Europe, after World War Two. (2) Obtaining, on the President's behalf, Senate approval for US membership of the United Nations, though Acheson by his own admission 'always believed that the Charter was impractical'. (3) Devising the Truman Doctrine which pledged US support for 'free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures' and which Russia didn't hesitate to blame for starting the Cold War. (4) United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation. (5) United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. (6) Bretton Woods Conference, which established the IMF and the World Bank. (7) NATO.
One biographer claimed he was 'arguably the major architect of the post World War Two order'.
That day at West Point, the former Secretary of State appeared to confirm James Reston's view that 'he could be relied upon to tell Presidents what he honestly thought about the realities of power in the world and not what they wanted to hear'.
Predictably, the response from some quarters in Britain, not least Fleet Street, was murderous. The Daily Express
, under Lord Beaverbrook, called it a 'stab in the back'. Made worse by the fact Britain was America's 'devoted ally'. The Sunday Times
wondered if America's success during the Cuban missile crisis had 'gone to his head'? The Daily Telegraph
reminded its readers that Acheson was always 'more immaculate in dress than in judgement'.
Lord Chandos, President of the Institute of Directors, condemned Acheson's words on the grounds that they constituted 'a bitter attack on the present policies of the British Government' and were nothing less than 'a calculated insult to the British nation'.
It counted heavily with Chandos and other senior figures in boardrooms across the country that Acheson was an adviser to the Kennedy Government. They feared business leaders worldwide might conclude his West Point speech represented 'the views, in however distorted a fashion, of the administration'.
Chandos pressed Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to 'reply in no uncertain terms to the deplorable criticisms of the United Kingdom uttered by Mr Acheson'. As Oliver Lyttelton, he had been Secretary of State for the colonies in Winston Churchill's last Cabinet; which also featured Harold Macmillan as the minister in charge of housing. The two men's career paths also crossed a decade or so earlier when they were both members of Churchill's wartime coalition cabinet.
The public nature of his outburst suggests that Chandos expected his complaint to be dealt with promptly and at the highest possible level. The directors' champion evidently believed 'the sentiments expressed in this letter are those of a majority of the British people'. Adding to his woes, Macmillan had been relocated to temporary quarters in Admiralty House while Downing Street was undergoing structural repairs.
The Prime Minister was due to fly, in a week or two's time, to Nassau in the Bahamas for a meeting with President Kennedy at which the future of Skybolt (Britain's RAF-based nuclear deterrent) would be discussed. Could it be true the former Secretary of State had been reflecting the unofficial views of the US Government?
Members of the White House press corps who bothered to inquire were assured by Pierre Salinger, the presidential press secretary, that JFK knew nothing about the content of Acheson's speech ahead of its delivery. Typically, prior to the monumental fuss it stirred in the UK papers, reporters in the US showed little interest in that section of the former Secretary of State's speech dealing with the 'special relationship'. A statement issued from Foggy Bottom reminded anyone who cared to listen that the former Secretary of State had been speaking as a private citizen, which meant his right to speak needed 'no defence or explanation'.
Later, as a result of an intervention allegedly inspired by Kennedy himself (following a telephone conversation with Macmillan), the State Department went out of its way to insist: 'US-UK relations are not based only on a power calculus, but also on a deep community of purpose and long practice of close cooperation'. 'Special relationship' might not be a perfect phrase, the statement continued. However, 'sneers at Anglo-American reality would be equally foolish'.
The Prime Minister probably struggled to keep his anger under tight control as he composed a reply to Lord Chandos. Beneath the familiar patrician calm (in public at least) it was easy to imagine Macmillan seething privately over what, in his view, looked and sounded like an attempt 'to denigrate the will and resolution of Britain and the British people'.
In a letter to his former Cabinet colleague, circulated to the newspapers, Macmillan wrote: 'Mr Acheson has fallen into an error which has been made by quite a lot of people in the course of the past 400 years, including Philip of Spain, Louis the Fourteenth, Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler'.
Bernard Levin, analysing what he described as 'the startling extravagance' of the Prime Minister's reply, speculated that Dean Acheson 'seemed to have touched a nerve'.
Writing to Arthur Schlesinger Jr on 14 January 1963, the former Secretary of State admitted he had been surprised 'a speech to a student conference would go ricochetting around the world in this way, nor, furthermore, that the paragraph held the variety of meanings which seemed to be distilled from it. 'Doubtless,' Acheson added, perhaps just a little ruefully, 'I should have known better'.
At his meeting with President Kennedy in the Bahamas, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan lost Skybolt and gained Polaris. Historians believe the arrangement enraged Charles de Gaulle who wanted 'a Europe uncontrolled by the United States'. On 29 January 1963, he vetoed Britain's application to join the European Economic Community.
Russell Galbraith was Head of News, Current Affairs and Sport at Scottish Television from 1972 to 1982. He has been a working journalist for more than 70 years